I find a lot of comfort in the idea of a writer’s growth into skill. I believe that if you write frequently, practice, never give up, and try new things, you will eventually attain the skill you are meant to have. I believe that anyone can be as good a writer as they want (though, I suppose, certain artistic deities among us may have a talent we can never claim).
But I think that there are actually two fundamental and different skillsets that a writer must develop, and I think that the way we talk about them—or don’t talk about them—has a great impact on how we view a writer’s skill.
The skill of “text” is the writing itself. Words, vocabulary, sentence patterns, grammar, etc. Though the line may be blurred, you could include things like transitions, pacing, and paragraph length in this category as well.
The thing about “text” skill is that it’s relatively easy to spot, and easy to quantify. You can read a paragraph of someone’s writing and know fairly quickly how good they are. Of course, certain stylistic choices might make good writing sound simple, or bad writing sound elegant, but the fact remains that there is a fundamental skillset in writing good text.
I happen to think this skillset can be developed with greater ease. Reading widely, learning more vocabulary, studying grammatical rules and choices—all can make your text read better.
Learning how to write bad text in a first draft is a fundamental skill, and learning how to revise it into something better is probably what most people think of when they think of revision and editing.
But there’s a skillset much deeper and more elusive than text alone.
The skill of “content” is what the writing is about. It’s the plot, the characters, the scenes, the setting. It’s what the words describe and bring to life.
Many people can write beautiful sentences about nothing. Many people can also dream up original characters and incredible worlds but be unable to describe them well. The skillsets of content are much more complex—but I don’t want to suggest that they are somehow superior, or more innate, than those of text. I just think they’re harder to quantify, and thus harder to develop.
I think we expend a lot of energy thinking and talking about skills of text. At least, it’s what I think about when I think of writing badly in a draft; it’s what I think about when it comes to revision. But the skills of content are absolutely vital, and much more difficult to pin down.
What exactly makes a well-drawn character? What makes a complex plot? The issue is that pinpointing what other people have done well does not necessarily increase your own skill—because, sometimes, the best you can do is simply copy what they have done. How do you develop your own skill for content from observing others? How do you build those skills on your own?
I think the answer, as with most things, is time and practice. Observation and reading is a vital start to learning those skills, but at some point, all you’ll know is what others have done (and, depending on your views on originality, what you cannot do). I think you have to just keep trying, throwing out stories and characters and seeing what happens. Abandon all desire for quality and originality and just write, and learn from your own writing. What worked? What didn’t? With your own work, at least, you can use it however you please in the future.
There’s a lot of patience involved in developing as a writer (or any artist, I would imagine). Getting frustrated and giving up is the only way you’ll never improve.